What MPs wear in the House of Commons

Let’s talk about British politics. Specifically, let’s talk about the clothes involved in British politics. During June’s heat wave, the the House of Commons’ speaker announced that male MPs would not have to wear jackets and ties.

The building’s not air conditioned. I mention that because I come from America, as do a fair number of my readers, and the U.S. has reached to a point where people kind of assume air conditioning in public place. But not much in Britain is air conditioned. Summers are cool here, at least by American standards. You don’t need it, except when (briefly) you do. Besides, the hall was built in 1097. I’m not sure if the hall is actually where the Commons meets, but it’s the bit I could find information on. And it’s close enough to help us understand that air conditioning wasn’t part of the architects’ plans.

Irrelevant photo: Thrift, growing on a wall.

When the Financial Times wrote about the momentous changes that tieless, jacketless men would cause, it said the Commons had taken “haphazard steps” toward modernization—which it spelled –isation, but never mind that.

“MPs are allowed to use phones in the chamber, but are still required to employ archaic language rules, including not referring to each other by name. Independent recommendations to allow breast-feeding during debates have not been implemented. There is no electronic voting.”

It was only last February that the Commons clerks stopped wearing wigs.

Allowing phones has been a mixed blessing. When parliament opened (that was also in June), one MP tweeted a photo of the of the occasion, allowing everybody on Twitter to notice something she hadn’t: The MP in front of her was looking at his phone instead of listening to the speeches and his screen seemed to show a surprising amount of flesh.

Scandal, scandal, scandal!

The reason the speaker could rule on ties and jackets is that wearing them is a convention, not a rule. The ban on breast feeding is surely also a convention, since males rarely do that and rules date back to the days when women not only couldn’t become MPs, they couldn’t vote and were only supposed to breathe if their husbands felt it wouldn’t upset the household. So I’m guessing no one thought to write a rule against it–the it here being breast feeding, which I mention because, as always, we’ve wandered a bit.

Maybe we can hope for progress on that (again, that’s breast feeding) in the next decade or six. By which time the creepizoid with the phone may have moved into well-deserved obscurity.

And if he hasn’t? One or both of the following things will happen: 1) After initially being embarrassed/outraged/threatened/whatevered (I don’t claim to understand all the elements that drive him, but I do believe it’s more than the most obvious one) by seeing a woman breast feed in public, and after making obnoxious jokes about her, he’ll gradually become desensitized and maybe even come to understand that this was the original purpose of the equipment. 2) He’ll get older. The hormones he’s been enjoying so much will lose interest in him and move to someone younger and more promising, after which he’ll be left with nothing but a sad, vague memory of why all that used to seem so interesting.

Oh, and/or 3) He’ll become prime minister and swear that wasn’t him in the picture and besides, he was doing research on how easily children can access pornography on their phones and how damaging it can be to their careers. He’ll launch a commission to look into pornography. Et cetera.

Enough about him.

The tie-and-jacket business ended up all over the papers because this is Britain we’re talking about. It has its traditions. In fact, MP Peter Bone—a Conservative—said it was an example of dumbing down. I don’t know what he had to say about the wigs, but I’m sure he’ll be apoplectic when breast feeding’s allowed during debates.

The odd thing about his comment is that he may have been one of the people who rose to speak without a tie. I’m not even going to try to make sense of this.

Nothing I’ve found says what female MPs are allowed to do in a heat wave. They’re supposed to dress with comparable formality, whatever that means.

No MP is supposed to wear a tee shirt—especially one with a slogan—but occasionally one of them does and the fact that it’s frowned on means it gets all the more attention. When an MP wore one saying, “This is what a feminist looks like,” it made the papers. Ditto the one that said, “No more page 3” (a reference to the pictures naked women with improbable breasts–highly improbable breasts–that used to appear on page 3 of the Mail). [Sorry–it’s the Sun. I’m leaving the error so the comment correcting it makes sense.]

But MPs don’t get thrown out for wearing a tee shirt. What happens is that they become invisible to the speaker, who won’t call on them if they want to speak. On the other hand, if the tee shirt speaks loudly enough, that doesn’t matter.

MPs are also not allowed to wear armor in the chamber. I’m guessing that wasn’t a problem during the heat wave, but it is disappointing. If I were an MP, I would so love to do that. They’re also not allowed to speak Welsh (remember, the English conquered the Welsh way back when, and that kind of thing does linger; as far as I can tell, they’re allowed to speak in any other language), call each other by their names (that was mentioned above in a quote, but it’s so strange it’s worth repeating), or call each other pipsqueak, swine, rat, tart, or a few other out-of-date insults. The more modern ones don’t seem to be banned.

They also can’t accuse each other of lying or hypocrisy. Ignorance and malice, I think, are allowed but probably not done.

The BBC says,  “Breaking with convention has always been a way of making a political point. Oliver Cromwell wore plain, and not very clean, linen made by a country tailor, and a hat without a hat band.”

In 1900, it says, new rules were introduced to deal with the tall hats that were in fashion. It quotes Alfred Kinnear, an MP, to explain how it worked:

” ‘At all times remove your hat on entering the House, and put it on upon taking your seat and remove it again on rising for whatever purpose. If the MP asks a question he will stand, and with his hat off and he may receive the answer of the Minister seated and with his hat on.’ ”

Have you got that? Good, because it goes on, no longer quoting Kinnear.

“Until 1998, MPs were able to wear an ‘opera hat’ to draw attention to themselves to raise a point of order. Two of the black top hats were kept in the Commons, but they were scrapped by the Select Committee on Commons Modernisation because they made the House look ridiculous. [No? Really?]

” ‘There are still tags in the cloakroom for MPs to hang their swords on,’ says journalist Quentin Letts. ‘It’s a little red ribbon next to their coat hooks.’ ”

I seem to remember a female MP being told she couldn’t cross the lobby unless she was wearing heels, and there was an almighty flap over that, but I haven’t been able to find anything about it online. Who’d have thought there were so many unrelated issues involving MPs and shoes?

Traditionally, the speaker of the house wore what’s called court dress—knee breeches, silk stockings, and buckled shoes, and over that a silk gown with (or without, in the current speaker’s case) “a train and a mourning rosette (also known as a ‘wig bag’) over the flap collar at the back.”

I have no idea what that last bit means but that’s fine. I’ve found I can lead an entire life with no understanding of wig bags and mourning rosettes. Or silk gowns. Let’s think of it as an elaborate way of saying they look fabulous—in a bizarre and dated sort of way.

But that’s the everyday outfit. For state occasions, “The Speaker wears a robe of black satin damask trimmed with gold lace and frogs with full bottomed wig and, in the past, a tricorne hat.”

A full-bottomed wig is but the kind that flows over the shoulder, as opposed to the shortened wigs barristers wear. A frog is a bit of elaborate trim, not something you find in the local pond.

Recent speakers have been chipping away at this. Betty Boothroyd decided not to wear the wig. Michael Martin refused the knee breeches, the silk stockings, and the buckled shoes. The current speaker, John Bercow, has given up on court dress altogether, although once you eliminate the stockings, breeches, buckled shoes, wig, and three-cornered hat, I’m not sure what’s left. He wore morning dress under the state robe at state openings.

I’m not actually sure what morning dress is. In my house, it’s a bathrobe over a nightshirt, but then I’m not British and I think I’ve pretty well established that I don’t know how to behave. We can safely assume that’s not what he means.

“As seen at the 2015 State Opening of Parliament, Bercow further toned down the state robe by removing the gold frogging on the sleeves and train, so that it now resembles a pro-chancellor’s robe at certain universities. However, he returned to wearing the traditional robe in 2016.”

Which is a relief, because we all hate to see Britain dumbed down. And I, at least, need something to make fun of.

*

On a vaguely related topic, the Guardian ran a letter (forget the link—I’ve worn myself out) about how teachers were supposed to dress and behave in the 1950s. It quoted a handbook warning them not to get drunk on Saturdays or open the door in their braces. If you’re American, those aren’t on your teeth, they’re your suspenders, but if you’re British they’re not your suspenders because suspenders are those old-fashioned things women wore to hold up their stockings—the things Americans called garters.

Are you still with me?

A second letter writer—the Guardian’s letter writers are both insane and wondrous—responded with a tale about a teacher who not only got drunk on Saturdays but was found “wallowing in the horse trough outside his local declaiming: ‘Women and children first.’ ”

So no, Britain’s not all formality and good behavior.

*

I was going to end this by writing about what the queen wears to parliament on the rare occasions when she’s allowed in, but I’ve gone on too long. Another time.

I can’t end, though, without adding that the Church of England’s governing body, the Synod, just voted to allow the clergy to conduct services without wearing the whole formal regalia of–well, don’t ask me what-all it’s called. Let’s just say robes and leave it at that, okay?

Less formal churches have, apparently, already dispensed with the robes, so this only confirms and formalizes an existing trend, but since the Church of England is the Church of England, the change won’t become canon law until the queen approves. I don’t know if she can refuse her approval. Britain has an unwritten constitution (yes, it’s complicated; no, I’m still trying to understand it), which is another way of saying I wouldn’t know where to look if I wanted to find out the limits of her actual powers.

Anyway (she said cheerily), the world is ending. MPs can go tieless, priests are holding services dressed like ordinary mortals, and that teacher a few paragraphs up? He’s probably still in the horse trough, declaiming, “Women and children first.”

In his braces.